Working with local people to adapt to climate change
Casey Williams, Patrick Kirkby

Climate change has arrived. Catastrophes in New Orleans, Satkhira, and Vanuatu provide a stark example of what it might be like to live with a climate that is increasingly extreme and unpredictable. Without dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the adverse effects of climate change will become much worse. The poorest and most marginalised -- many of whom live in developing countries -- are likely to be the hardest hit.

Slashing emissions remains a priority, but we have to also adapt to human-induced changes in the climate, which will continue to have adverse impacts. Developed countries -- responsible for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions -- have an obligation to help vulnerable people and countries in their efforts to adapt. But to be fair and effective, adaptation support cannot follow the old, top-down, prescriptive model of development. It must reflect the needs and interests of local people, privilege local values and priorities, and be led by the people themselves.

One attempt to make adaptation more just, inclusive and effective has been the development of Community-Based Adaptation (CBA). CBA is an approach to adaptation research and practice in which practitioners aim to work with vulnerable people to improve their capacity to adapt to climatic variability and change. CBA emerged in 2005, and it comprises both local-level interventions and a research program organised around regular conferences (this year’s conference will be held from April 27-30 in Nairobi, Kenya).

CBA is a young discipline and encompasses a wide range of attitudes, methods, and projects. Its features remain contested, its goals disputed. The feature that unifies CBA is its attempt to preserve and, in some cases, restore power to people who are often denied the authority to decide for themselves how to adapt to changes in their environments. It is CBA’s attention to power that makes it such an important shift in the adaptation paradigm.

Those facilitating CBA do not presume to know in advance what a particular group of people needs in order to adapt successfully. Instead, CBA practitioners try to work with local people to understand what they need, what they value, and what they think should count as a successful response to climatic change. They also seek to ensure that the community leads the adaptation process, that local people are able to use their existing skills and knowledge to come up with solutions that protect their interests.

Like any adaptation model, CBA suffers from challenges and shortcomings. In some cases, it remains unclear how CBA projects differ from standard development interventions. CBA practitioners have to figure out how to design projects that strengthen the overall capacities of local people, while also ensuring that communities improve their ability to respond to climate-related stresses.

There is also disagreement about what the term community means and implies. We tend to imagine that communities are fixed and stable entities -- collections of similar people living in a particular place -- and yet, if we look closely, we see that communities are extremely diverse. These people often have diverse and conflicting values, perspectives, concerns, priorities, and motivations. Simply working with a “community” does not mean that one is protecting the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. Competing priorities and various other factors prevent meaningful local participation. All of this limits the effectiveness of CBA.

Despite these challenges, CBA aspires to offer a more inclusive and empowering alternative to top-down models of adaptation and development. It seeks to facilitate socially just, fair, and effective adaptation, and to protect the interests of the poor and marginalised as they wrestle with destructive and unpredictable changes in the climate. 

 

Casey Williams is a Visiting Researcher at ICCCAD  and a Hart Fellow from the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.

 

Patrick Kirkby is a PhD Candidate (Geography) at the University of Tasmania, Australia and a Visiting Researcher at ICCCAD.

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